Over the years, Gus Van Sant has become one of the premiere modern-day story tellers about the burdens of social and emotional dysfunction, assembling for his films a parade of hustlers, junkies, psychopathic weather girls and troubled geniuses to wander and stumble across the stage as fascinating displays for his film’s audiences. I have always found it to be a curiosity that in his increasingly popular films seemingly about sex, sexuality and wishes for emotional attachment in the lives of those living on society’s outer fringes (for example, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho and Milk), there is in fact a puzzling lack of real sexuality, sensuality or emotional intimacy between the main characters.
It appears that Van Sant presents his audiences with charades of sensuality and intimacy, directing his actors to perform as though they were emotionally engaged, when in fact they are not. Van Sant has adopted the very same vacant voyeuristic stance that was so characteristic for two of his main filmmaking heroes, William S. Burroughs and Andy Warhol.
Gus Van Sant’s 1978 short-film adaptation of William Burrough’s essay/short story Do Easy (DE) provides a clear example of the projection of Van Sant’s own psychology spilling over into the area of relational impairment. Most short reviews of Van Sant’s adaptation, The Discipline of Do Easy, blithely describe the film as an offbeat “instructional” little film about living in the easiest, most relaxed way we can. Some even say that the short film is filled with great advice that’s very zen-like in nature. A quirky and fun film to watch.
But let’s have another take on what goes on in Do Easy. Van Sant’s advice centers upon themes of collecting, measuring, counting, cleaning, repetition and “magical” undoing. He describes Doing Easy as a WAY of doing, but the doing is in fact constantly being alert to things, a never-ending vigilant observance of potentially dangerous objects, even within the small world of one’s very own apartment. Doing Easy yields neither an easy nor relaxed life, but rather an obsessive-compulsive pathology, most clearly manifested in a socially deadly form of isolation of affect.
Thinking and observing are separated from and take the place of real emotional relationships with others. And that is what is so characteristic of his major films about society’s outsiders. In this particular short film, Doing Easy doesn’t lead one to a relaxed sense of attachment to or closeness with others, but rather in the end it provokes the fearful destruction of others.